It's doubtful that Republican presidential candidate John McCain expected a 150-pound roadblock when his "Straight-Talk Express" arrived for a March 1 campaign rally at Little Saigon's Asian Garden Mall. But that's what happened—at least figuratively. Bao Nguyen and about 15 other UC Irvine students rejected the McCain campaign's emotional pleas to disband and instead—with a surprised national press corps observing—protested the U.S. senator's long history of repeated use of the anti-Asian racial slur "gook." Most recently, McCain uttered the slur on Feb. 17 and openly encouraged journalists to report the fact in Vietnam-veteran-loaded South Carolina. "I hate the gooks," said McCain, a Vietnam War POW more than a quarter-century ago, "and I will hate them for as long as I live . . . and you can quote me." Five days later, after the South Carolina primary, he issued a press-release apology, claiming that "gooks"—a derogatory term primarily used by Ameri can soldiers against Asians for more than a century—referred only to his North Vietnamese captors. Many elder statesmen of the local Vietnamese community—happy that the fellow Republican and vocal anti-communist was coming to town—decided to accept that explanation.
"Nobody was going to do anything about it," Nguyen, a 19-year-old political-science major, said. "We sympathize that Mr. McCain was a POW who fought for us, who fought for democracy, and we totally respect that. But the term 'gook' is detrimental to all Asians. The fact is that the American public can't differentiate between his captors and us. We look just like them. Slurs are dehumanizing. They hurt our community. There's no excuse—even for a POW, a senator, a public figure running for president—to use the term."
To dramatize his point at the rally, Nguyen and his fellow student protestors wore last-minute handmade T-shirts that read, "American Gook." Standing before a startled crowd of mostly older Vietnamese-Americans, Nguyen yelled into his bullhorn, "Are you a gook?"
"No," the students shouted back. This identical exchange was repeated several times.
What happened next is one of those odd, unexpected but ugly moments that American politics seems to produce. The peaceful protestors suddenly found them selves surrounded and under physical attack—by older Vietnamese-Americans. They were repeatedly kicked, shoved and spit on. Dozens of times, the attackers screamed, "Communists!" and, "Go back to Hanoi!" Two female protesters were kicked in their stomachs and fell to the pavement. Nguyen and fellow UCI student Kwok Louie pleaded for calm. They were greeted with shouts of "Down with Communists!" One man issued a direct threat of violence. Later, one of the aggressors claimed that "If you're anti-McCain, you're a communist." Perhaps symbolic of the crowd's views, one man held a poster that read, "Gook = Com munist Only."
Within minutes, the protesters—no thanks to the uninterested Westminster police officers looking on—had been pushed back about 40 feet into oncoming traffic on Bolsa Avenue. Remarkably, Nguyen—though visibly shaken, his face splattered with spit—stood dignified beyond his years. He renewed his call for calm, acceding to the crowd's demand to take his "American Gook" T-shirt off.
"Dear people, we love our country like you do. We hate communism like you do," he said in perfect Vietnamese. "But we don't agree with the word 'gook.' It's wrong. It's hurtful. People need to be educated about that."
When the cops eventually snapped out of their haze, they began using their batons to push the student protestors back toward the hostile crowd. "Get back on the sidewalk," they ordered. More than 40 minutes after the shoving began and with reporters swooping in for interviews, tensions finally broke.
Onstage, McCain finished his rambling, patronizing 20-minute speech. Afterward—before he reboarded the "Straight-Talk Express"—he summed up the event with the local media. "There were a couple of protestors and a couple of thousand enthusiastic loving supporters," he said. "I think it's the diversity of America."
"If I hadn't been there," Nguyen proposed, "the media would have said, 'Warm Welcome for McCain in Little Saigon.'"
In fact, they did. Much to McCain's delight, the next day's Los Angeles Times headlined their article, "A Hero's Welcome for McCain in Little Saigon." They buried news of the protest in the 15th paragraph. The Orange County Regi ster titled their story, "McCain's Visit Stirs Admiration." They didn't bother with Nguyen until the 16th paragraph. The national media wasn't so stingy with attention. Nguyen was featured on CNN, CNBC and CBS radio and in such newspapers as The Washington Post.
At a glance, Nguyen looks like a typical UCI sophomore lost in his own academic world. His dress is classroom casual: loose-fitting jeans; a gray sweat shirt and blue sneakers; gel in his fine, spiked hair; jade-colored beads around his left wrist. A well-worn, stuffed book bag and cell phone are his constant companions. If he has recently pulled an all-nighter, it doesn't show. His black eyes dart constantly. He smiles and talks easily. During a short stroll on campus, more than a dozen passing classmates enthusiastically greet him.
But appearances are deceiving when it comes to this tall, sinewy Vietnamese-American who grew up in Garden Grove. If most college students—hell, most Americans—are hopelessly apathetic, Nguyen, the sixth of seven children born to parents who fled Saigon in 1980, is anything but. He's active in the Asian Pacific Students Association, has volunteered to help flood victims in Vietnam, and represents UCI on the Irvine City Council. In fact, he's at the forefront of a courageous new generation of Vietnamese-American youth whose progressive politics have pushed them into a collision with their elders.
"I didn't want to upset those people; I'm part of them. That's my community. I respect their experiences," said Nguyen. "But when things like this happen, it's discouraging." He was scared, he admitted, "But that's a risk you have to take. I won't give up."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Nguyen won't give up because, he says, there is more at stake than mere principle in the use of words like "gook."
"We weren't there to be confrontational with the crowd," he said. "We were there to educate the American public that all slurs—gook, chink, nip—affect our Asian community."
While McCain and his collaborators in Little Saigon tacitly agreed to rationalize his use of the slur, it doesn't take much work to find such slurs linked to attacks on Asian-Americans. In 1998, UCI student Richard Machado was convicted of sending life-threatening e-mails to 59 Asian students. In 1996, Gunner Lindberg ambushed and stabbed to death 24-year-old Thien Minh Ly on a tennis court at Tustin High School. The Vietnamese-American Ly had been a standout student at UCLA and Georgetown University; Lindberg later bragged that he had killed a "Jap." In 1993, a group of white teenagers in Laguna Beach were looking for "faggots" to assault when they settled on Vietnamese immigrant Loc Minh Troung, who suffered permanent, severe brain damage during the attack.
"We have to unite," said Nguyen. "We should all understand that terms like 'gook' are wrong. Remember Thien Minh Ly—people have died. I am not giving up on this. I will not give up on this at all."